For several years during the late 1960s and early `70s, Frank Lucas was one of Harlem’s most successful businessmen. He had the acumen to go directly to a supplier for his wares, cutting out the expense of a middle man, thus allowing him to sell at a price that beat his competitors but still earn him a hefty profit. He knows the value of branding his product, creating the awareness that his product was the best on the market.
Unfortunately, his stock in trade was heroin.
As portrayed by Denzel Washington, Lucas is a keenly intelligent man who quickly steps in to fill the power vacuum left by the passing of his old crime lord employer. Lucas knows that the best way to avoid the cop’s attentions is not to attract them. He dresses in well-tailored, conservative suits and chastises his employees who try and dress in splashier clothes. He appoints his brothers and cousins as his chief lieutenants, blood securing a loyalty that money can not. But for all the intelligence with which he runs his criminal enterprise, he knows that sometimes the best message to send is one that is punctuated with a quick burst of violence.
Lucas’s opposite number is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a Newark cop too honest for his own good. On a police force where nearly everyone is on the take, Roberts is looked at suspiciously for having recovered nearly a million dollars during a drug bust and not skimming any out of it for himself. Contrasting the ill-gained luxury of Lucas’ life, Roberts lives in a squalid apartment, alone. As his investigation into the drug trade deepens, he finds that his superiors’ prejudices blind them to the fact that a black man could set up and run an organization like Lucas’.
American Gangster is a film with a good screenplay and good direction, but really blossoms under the power of the performances brought to it by its cast. Washington and Crowe bring their best to the film. However, their performances in no way overshadow the likes of Josh Brolin’s corrupt New York City police detective, Chiwetel Ejifour as Lucas’s closest confident and Ruby Dee as Lucas’s moralistic mother.
What the screenplay does is create a fascinating portrait of both Lucas and Roberts, comparing and contrasting the two men. Lucas and Roberts were real-life adversaries in the 1970s, and while the script keeps many of the pertinent facts intact, the usual allowances have been made in the name of dramatic license. If there’s any minor stumble the film makes, it is with a subplot involving Roberts’ wife (Carla Gugino) and son leaving him due to Roberts spending all of his time on the job. It is a storyline seen before in countless cop films and seems to intrude on the main storyline here. Fortunately, not much screen time is devoted to this thread. Gugino does admirable work in trying to elevate the material above the expected clichés, however, it might have been better if the whole plotline had hit the editing room floor.
The movie concludes with neither a bang nor a whimper. While some may be disappointed that there is no climactic shootout with Lucas gunning away at Roberts leading a charge of police officers, the real-life facts of the story don’t allow for such an ending and the filmmakers have wisely resisted such an alteration. Any other, Hollywood-ized ending would ring false, betraying all the good that had come before.